Suburban incursion: Close, but no neighborhood

Architect Louis Kahn's famous aphorism about a brick wanting to be an arch was ignored by the creators of Walker Square. The new apartment complex on West Main Street is as rhythmic as an air-horn blast and with none of the shock value. Except for a very few ersatz stone window caps, there are no arches, and most of the "brick" is part of a prefabricated panel system.

It would be far too easy to malign Walker Square for its design sensibilities, as it seems to have been delivered track-side by a train from some outer-ring suburb. And yet, despite the suburban stylings and the current glut of new apartments, it appears to be about three quarters full, populated by friendly people and affable pets, all of whom seem to enjoy themselves immensely.

For this reason, some of Walker Square's more positive qualities ought to be stroked– at least as lovingly as you might stroke a patch of crabgrass with your foot.

As its name suggests, Walker Square's most salient feature is its location within walking distance of the Corner, Downtown, and all points in between. But "Walker" Square is a misnomer, as the virtually empty daytime state of the parking lots seems to attest. Work is clearly somewhere beyond a reasonable walking distance­ a function of individual circumstance, of course­ but it's a shame that more foot traffic does not originate here.

The two-bedroom units are well planned, affording the occupants a living room buffer between individual suites. Just a third smaller in square footage, the one-bedroom apartments are far more spacious that the veritable closets that some Charlottesville landlords pass off as bargain quarters. Outfitting all the units are stainless steel appliances, generous storage space, and cream-colored baseboard molding with electric beige walls.

Of course, "electric" beige is being somewhat cheeky, but it underscores the general character of Walker Square, which wants to become part of the fabric so badly that it ends up flying completely under the radar. The entire complex is composed of simulated row houses where nothing is too light or too dark. Slate, gun-metal gray, cream, and red-brick parapets– that's the palette.

The two roads that bisect the complex meet at a tiny central park adorned with manicured grass and a doggie-bag dispenser. From this description, you might imagine a Sesame Street for bourgeois bohemians-­ and you wouldn't be far off.

Neighborhoods, by definition, are areas that espouse distinct characteristics. They are what they are because they aren't like other neighborhoods. However, the unwritten quality that neighborhoods must possess is an evolution: streets and buildings that develop over time and foster a sense of "community," as elusive as that term may be.

But "evolution" implies continued growth, as regeneration, recycling, and periodic resurgences take place. Walker Square is certainly a neighborhood by the standards of housing unit proximity­ but it lacks evolutionary integrity in the haste and finality of its design.

As in other apartment complexes, stacked dwellings often suffocate courtyards or grassy patches that "invite" residents to mingle (or at least to feign tolerance for their neighbors).

Just as often, these kinds of designs fail to bring people together; they are ghost towns with poor circulation and no meaningful common space. Walker Square is different.

Even if most of its open space is for parking (Parker Square?), the common pedestrian areas prevent overcrowding. It may not be the most ambitious design, and it may never really be a neighborhood, but the arrangement of Walker Square's buildings, its sidewalks abutted by patios, and that Sesame Street feel have been remarkably successful in fostering a community.

I should know­ I live there.

Trackside: view of Walker Square from West Main Street.

Walker Square: a Sesame Street for bourgeois bohemians?